Connected \\ October 28, 2019

Curators scheme in color

Not long after children learn to talk, they begin to articulate their own sense of personal style whenever they are asked the inevitable question: What’s your favorite color?


“Very early in our development we tend to associate a sense of connection with color and the way it expresses an aspect of our identity,” says Petra Slinkard, PEM’s Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles. “We all gravitate toward certain colors. There is the joke that all curators wear black, and particularly in a place like Salem, black is a very powerful color.”


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Petra Slinkard, The Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.


This accepted truth served as a helpful guide as Slinkard, Curator Paula Richter and Deputy Director Lynda Roscoe Hartigan set out to create the new Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery of Fashion and Design. With more than 50,000 works in PEM’s renowned fashion collection, and limited space available, color became a playful lens through which to think about framing final selections.

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Artists in Europe. Robe à l’anglaise (English-style dress), about 1785. Silk and linen. Gift of Miss Elizabeth W. Silsbee, 1914. 104362. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert.


Together the team knew they wanted the fashion lineup to represent historic and contemporary choices and include clothing worn by everyday people in everyday situations. They sought a balance of men’s and women’s garments that crossed multiple time periods and cultures, a true testament to the breadth and depth of the collection.

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Artists in the United States. Military uniform, about 1812. Broadcloth with gilt braid, buckskin, and wool felt. Gift of Mrs. John C. Dow, 1902. 100044, 100045, and 100046 © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert.

But they also wanted structure, some mechanism for order. This is where color comes into the picture. Now, standing on an elevated platform in the gallery, dynamic arrangements of mannequins model carefully considered and complementary hues. Take yellow for example: grouped together are a satin and taffeta dress by designer Arnold Scaasi from his 1986 fall/ winter collection, a silk dress made by artists in China at the turn of the 20th century and a wedding gown from 1719, one of the oldest surviving wedding dresses from Colonial America.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.


A banyan, a brown silk gown that belonged to the ninth president of Harvard College, is juxtaposed with a leather Native American (Nez Perce) shirt, embellished with porcupine quills, glass beads and deer claws, that proclaimed the owner’s status as a warrior, spiritual leader or diplomat.

Two blue bathing suits reveal changing attitudes about fashion and modesty. Women who wore the wool suit from the 1900s had to contend with “beach police” — men tasked with measuring the length of their bathing dresses. Contrast that with the gingham bikini and consider how our social mores have shifted.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.


Instead of labels, detailed guidebooks in the galleries tell stories about the designers, the clothing and, in some cases, the original owners. Or, some may simply seek to experience the visual feast and savor the colors, textures and extraordinary artistry on display.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.


There was no precedent for what PEM wanted to do: combine fashion with design and show very disparate time periods and cultures together. Typically, a fashion exhibition explores a specific era, a designer or a type of clothing, say shoes or hats.


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© 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.


We took some risks and we owned those risks. We had faith in our team’s ability to interpret these objects in a way that is fun, but also informative,” says Slinkard. “I am proud of the way it all came together.
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